Raising Oklahoma’s smoking age merits debate

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board

Published: Mon. February 4, 2019

To reduce Oklahoma’s tobacco-related health woes, the American Lung Association is urging lawmakers to raise to 21 from 18 the legal age to purchase tobacco. It’s an idea that deserves serious consideration.

At one time, such calls would have been dismissed outright. Critics would argue that if 18-year-olds are mature enough to serve in the military and put their lives on the line, then they’re old enough to determine if they want to risk their health by smoking.

But attitudes have changed, and few people today argue smoking has any genuine positive benefit, let alone benefit that outweighs the harm done to one’s health. Plenty of smokers wish they had never begun the habit and are vocal about that fact, and they are often supportive of efforts to deter others from initiating tobacco use.

More importantly, there’s evidence that suggests raising the smoking age to 21 would have a deterrent effect.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids notes about 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before age 21. The group argues that the ages of 18 to 21 are “a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to regular, daily use. While less than half of adult smokers (46 percent) become daily smokers before age 18, four out of five do so before they turn 21.”

Critics may note the 46 percent who started smoking daily before age 18 did so despite laws that make sales to minors illegal and ask how adding three years to the prohibition would have any significant effect. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids responds, “Research shows that kids often turn to older friends and classmates as sources of cigarettes.” Thus, raising the legal age to 21 to purchase tobacco would “reduce the likelihood that a high school student will be able to legally purchase tobacco products for other students and underage friends.”

Put simply, 21-year-olds don’t usually hang around with 16-year-olds, so bumping the legal age of purchase to 21 reduces teenagers’ social access to tobacco.

A 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine (now called the National Academy of Medicine) found that raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco “will likely prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults. The age group most impacted will be those age 15 to 17 years.”

The report estimated that raising the minimum age of legal purchase to 21 would produce a 12 percent decrease in the prevalence of tobacco use among today’s teenagers by the time those kids are adults.

If the legal age nationwide were raised to 21 today, the research estimated, “there would be approximately 223,000 fewer premature deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer, and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for those born between 2000 and 2019.”

Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami, has filed legislation to raise Oklahoma’s smoking age to 21. That bill should not be dismissed without serious consideration. Only six states have enacted similar laws, but legislators should keep in mind there are times it’s good to be on the front edge of a trend, particularly when lives may be saved in the process.

Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on February 4, 2019